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Good without God

Good without God

Reason alone is not enough to keep human beings humane.


It has beome an annual tradition: The days grow shorter, the holidays approach, and the American Humanist Association rolls out an ad campaign promoting atheism and disparaging religion.

Last year, the organization placed ads reading "No god? No problem!" on hundreds of billboards and buses in more than a dozen cities. Its theme in 2008 was: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."

Related Article: Morality: Who Needs God

This year, the association is taking a more combative tone. It is spending $200,000 to "directly challenge biblical morality" in advertisements appearing on network and cable TV, as well as in newspapers, magazines, and on public transit. The ads juxtapose violent or otherwise unpleasant passages from the Bible (or the Koran) with "humanist" quotations from prominent atheists. For example, a dreadful prophecy from the Hebrew prophet Hosea -- "The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open" -- is contrasted with Albert Einstein's comment that he "cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation."

Of course anyone can cherry-pick quotes to make a point. And of course it is true, as the humanist group's executive director Roy Speckhardt maintains, that there are "religious texts" that "advocate fear, intolerance, hate, and ignorance." Religion has often been put to evil purposes or invoked to justify shocking cruelty; the same is true of every area of human endeavor, from medicine to journalism to philosophy to the law.

But it will take more than a few grim verses plucked out of context to substantiate the core message of the American Humanist Association's ad campaign: that God and the Judeo-Christian tradition are not necessary for the preservation of moral values and that human reason is a better guide to goodness than Bible-based religion.

Can people be decent and moral without believing in a God who commands us to be good? Sure. There have always been kind and ethical nonbelievers. But how many of them reason their way to kindness and ethics, and how many simply reflect the moral expectations of the society in which they were raised?

In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization.

In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization. "We know that you can be good without God," Speckhardt tells CNN. He can be confident of that only because he lives in a society so steeped in Judeo-Christian values that he takes those values for granted. But a society bereft of that religious heritage is a society not even Speckhardt would want to live in.

For in a world without God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil. There is no way to prove that even murder is wrong if there is no Creator who decrees "Thou shalt not murder." It certainly cannot be proved wrong by reason alone. One might reason instead -- as Lenin and Stalin and Mao reasoned -- that there is nothing wrong with murdering human beings by the millions if doing so advances the Marxist cause. Or one might reason from observing nature that the way of the world is for the strong to devour the weak -- and that natural selection favors the survival of the fittest by any means necessary, including the killing of the less fit.

To us today, believers and nonbelievers alike, it may seem obvious that human life is precious and that the weakest among us deserve special protection. But would we think so absent a moral tradition stretching back to Sinai? It seemed obvious in classical antiquity that sickly babies should be killed. "We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal," wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger 2,000 years ago, stressing that "it is not anger but reason" that justifies the murder of handicapped babies.

No, reason alone is not enough to keep human beings humane. Only if there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. Otherwise its wrongfulness is no more than a matter of opinion. Mao and Seneca approved of murder; we disapprove. Who are we to say they were wrong?

The God who created us, created us to be good. Atheists may believe -- and spend a small fortune advertising -- that we can all be "good without God." Human history tells a very different story.

This article originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

November 13, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 20

(19) Nathan Smith, January 24, 2011 7:04 PM

Human reason is fragile and unpredictable and often non consistent. The Torah is not. That is is one thing I have learned over time.

(18) es58, November 24, 2010 6:57 PM

to Paul: adding context

sorry, Russell's quote was on the linked, related article; here it is for context: Bertrand Russell wrote: I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it. Also, when I rhetorically asked: Why waste your time, my own answer would be that since, in fact, we do have souls, we really have no choice but to seek truth and good

(17) es58, November 23, 2010 10:21 PM

to paul: you wrote: one can actually be ethical and humane without any need for God

May I suggest: The above author's context for "good" is in the absolute/objective sense. You say you're an atheist. This usually implies that both the universe and life just happen to exist, basically an accident. Accidents are without meaning, so, it's hard to argue that anything in an accidental universe has meaning. This includes every form of ethical measurement: good/evil, right/wrong, righteous/wicked, even comparatives: better, worse, best, worst: all these terms become utterly meaningless in the absolute/objective sense. Therefore, your claim to being ethical/humane is shifted to a relative/subjective sense. But, at that point, all decisions are really just subjective preferences, which is the thrust of the quote above from Bertrand Russell. You're free, of course, to define your terms any way you want, but somewhere in there, there will probably be one of the ethical measurements or comparatives above, which are, again, meaningless words. The leaders of Iran and N Korea, etc can just as freely apply the same terms (ethical/humane) to their actions. Without an absolute standard for good, why even waste your time? Further, the relative standard, under pressure, will always eventually slide down the slope, slowly changing, until it's no longer recognizable.

(16) Paul, November 20, 2010 8:30 AM

Good without God

I am an atheist and from my experience, I find religious people are very insincere and hypocritical as what they profess is contrary to their actions. Secular humanism works for me and since I have never truly seen religion transform people's lives, I have therefore reached the conclusion that one can actually be ethical and humane without any need for God.

Anonymous, May 22, 2013 2:47 PM

Just go to a place where there is no concept of the Jewish G-d

Try India. Can you imagine that level of poverty and human suffering taking place in a Western country? they don't take care of each other. the idea of I am my brother's Keeper is not part of their moral landscape. It's a Jewish idea. And it permitates all of western society. People don't get to that idea on their own. It's not a natural human drive. People who live in western culture and say they are athiests and believe that they would be who they are without any religion are kidding themselves. They live in a culture where there is ethical and moral herd immunity: as long as there is a suffiecent number of believers in the population, the society will project Jewish values and protect those who have rejected G-d.

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